The penniless farm worker Nemorino has a mountain to climb if he's to win the spoiled and manipulative Adina. So what is the first image that Laurent Pelly and his designer Chantal Thomas present us with? A mountain – made from bales of hay. It's harvest time, and while farm workers like Nemorino toil in the fields, the lady of the manor has her lounger and parasol perched halfway up that mountain, diligently working on her tan.
It's a witty and capricious stage picture that reminds us why Pelly's last directorial outing at the Royal Opera – Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment – was such a joy. This is too. Not even the indisposition of the promised Nemorino, Rolando Villazon, could quite dampen its spirits.
The visual gags are effortless, the stage blockings elegantly purposeful, the detail unselfconsciously plentiful. When the dashing and incurably vain Sgt Belcore (the suave Ludovic Tézier) arrives on his recruitment drive, the advance party comprises just two soldiers, one approximately twice the height of the other. And just as you are wondering when the main event might appear, there he is, cock of the walk and on top of the mountain. It's the kind of language Adina understands. Poor Nemorino can only counter by throwing himself in front of her moped.
Adina, the Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, poses and pouts with more determination than Posh Spice, while the confidence and capriciousness of her character is wonderfully conveyed in the delicious ease of her coloratura. When she finally pours out her heart to Nemorino – "I'll make you as happy as I used to make you miserable" – she seals the promise with a stunning two-octave plunge. True love has its highs and lows, after all.
But Stefano Secco's shy Nemorino – his courage fuelled by Dr Dulcamara's "elixir" (cheap red plonk) – for once refuses to be her audience, and it's a smashing touch on Pelly's part that Adina's only truthful moment should be played to the back of Nemorino's head. By then his charm has won us all over. The body language is that of an uncoordinated puppy, the voice small, soft-grained, but honestly deployed. As for the bumptious Dulcamara, his bluster expertly conveyed by the amply upholstered Paolo Gavanelli, how appropriate that his fraudulent sales pitch should be upstaged by a tiny terrier in pursuit of more tangible treats.
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